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Paradise ... South Carolina Style, Lake Marion

Sunset and Osprey

Sunset, Lake Marion SC - Don Wuori

Don Wuori | E-Mail | Posted 08-23-09

It's not often that we nature photographer's are able to find a location that provides it all. The Santee Cooper lakes are such a place and for me "the place" is Lake Marion. The Santee Cooper lakes are made up of lake's Marion and Moultrie, which are connected by a six and a half mile canal. These manmade lakes were developed in the 1930's and 1940's as part of a project to provide a source of electricity for the increasing needs of South Carolina.

Lake Marion, South Carolina's largest, is located in central South Carolina. The lake has about 315 miles of shore line incorporating 173 square miles of previous farmland, marshes, and river bottom landscape. Lake Marion is well known for its fishing in particular, as well as its abundant wildlife.

Two popular public accesses include Santee State Park and the Santee National Wildlife Refuge. There are also many private marinas where boats are available for rental.

A word of caution, this lake has lots of stumps, many just barely submerged, which can result in unintended and sudden damage/injury/or worse to a boat and or its occupants. There are areas of stump free water, but just as many areas of treacherous water. It's best to know this lake well and or travel VERY slowly.

Water Lily

Water Lily, Lake Marion SC - Don Wuori

The lake has many standing dead trees and live cypress trees, both supporting a large population of Osprey. There are large areas of "big water" as well as enormous areas of swamp and ponds both of which may contain enclaves of trees and bushes conducive to a variety of songbirds and other creatures.

So what can you photograph on Lake Marion?

Well, in addition to the raptors, long-legged waders, waterfowl, and songbirds there are opportunities for landscapes, plants, flowers, insects, alligators, snakes, and mammals.

While I have not personally been successful photographing mammals, cruising shorelines adjacent to fields and or woodlands may get you shots of deer, raccoons, fox, squirrel, and very rarely the secretive bobcat.

Prothonotary Warbler gathering Nest Material

Prothonotary Warbler gathering moss, Lake Marion SC - Don Wuori

As far as birds there are large populations of Osprey, egrets, Great Blue Herons, hawks, some Bald Eagles and many varieties of ducks as well as all kinds of songbirds. My favorite songbird to photograph in the area is the Prothonotary Warbler, a beautiful brightly colored yellow bird with gray/blue wings. Some of the songbirds are migratory, as is the case with the Prothonotary Warbler, which is best photographed in the spring when they are readily available and their feathers are in great shape.

Equipment wise you can use lenses from ultra wide angles to super telephotos. Sturdy tripods are a must for longer lenses and there are times that off camera flash with a flash extender like the "Better Beamer" can be extremely helpful. It's important to carry large garbage bags to cover your equipment if it rains suddenly (and it does), and important to have spare batteries and lots of flash cards.

Having fast "vibration reduction" or "image stabilization" lenses is very helpful when on the water, as is having a camera able to shoot at higher ISO's. This allows as high a shutter speed as possible during low light situations.


Osprey, Lake Marion SC - Don Wuori

In my earlier years I fished in Lake Marion, but more recently have spent at least a day or two a year there photographing from a pontoon boat.

Perhaps the easiest way to describe the photography on the lake is to take you along on my last trip there - a guided photography trip with professional nature photographer Doug Gardner.
(See Wild Wings Photo Adventures)

Doug has outfitted a large pontoon boat with 4 swiveling seats, so at most, he will only take 4 photographers. There is lots of room for folks to store equipment and for tripod photography. Having those few fellow photographers aboard is very helpful for scanning the trees, stumps, and shoreline for those surprising photographic opportunities.

Juvenile Green Heron

Juvenile Green Heron, Lake Marion SC - Don Wuori

One major advantage of going with a photo guide like Doug is the fact that he has spent countless hours scouting this massive lake. He already knows where the best photographic opportunities are and he takes into account the quality of the light as he takes you to his favorite spots.

For example, this year there were many Osprey shots available. Opportunities to photograph the birds included: on the nest (some with young), diving and catching fish, in flight (with or without fish in their talons), sitting in trees eating, or just hanging out. Interestingly enough some Ospreys were harassed by small birds whose nests they approached.

There were numerous Osprey nests at eye level and one nest in particular that was on a stump not more then 18 inches above the water. We were actually shooting down into it.

Because of the large expanses of open water, we were able to easily see the birds returning to their nests and landing. Doug excitedly would exclaim "Shoot, Shoot, Shoot", as the birds came in.

Realize Doug is very careful however not to stress or harass the birds and we quickly moved on if an individual appeared nervous, stressed, or uncomfortable.

The early mornings (with the great light) are spent photographing Osprey. We moved into swamps and ponds in the later morning in search of other birds, as well as plants, flowers, snakes and insects.

Red-winged Blackbird (female)

Red-winged Blackbird (female), Lake Marion SC - Don Wuori

Doug had previously scouted an area in relatively shallow water that the pontoon boat was able to get into (and out of) which provided opportunities for Prothonotary Warblers, Eastern Bluebirds, and Downy Woodpeckers. On one of our stops to photograph an Osprey's nest from quite a distance we even saw a Hooded Warbler. Maybe next year I can photograph that very elusive bird.

By midday we were off the lake for lunch, returning to anchor in the shade adjacent to another rather distant Osprey nest. There were at least 4 Osprey about when suddenly an Osprey landed in the nest on top of a dead tree trunk. Just as quickly, another Osprey flew to the nest resulting in a fight the likes of which I have never seen before. It was over in seconds with the second Osprey (apparently not the first bird's mate but instead an intruder) rapidly flying off.

Afterward lunch we cruised the lake until forced to retreat back to the launch point when a very quick-moving thunder storm came in. After the storm passed we checked out a few other areas and were able to photograph some Green Heron chicks that popped in and out of some relatively heavy cover. Then Doug put us into position for a nesting silhouetted Osprey in the viewfinder as the sun set. It was a long but delightful and action packed day and frankly I can't wait to go back next spring.

Osprey returning to nest

Osprey returning to nest, Lake Marion SC - Don Wuori

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